Despite being 5 years ago, the notion and pictures of a flooded Tewkesbury came into the public spotlight once again. During the rain in late April of this year, Tewkesbury once again flooded; however, the flood waters were much lower than they had been 5 years earlier. The media and the public quickly likened the event to the 2007 floods, to the extent that visitors to the town were ringing businesses to see if they were ‘open for business’, while other stayed away altogether, anxious to get stuck in a flooded town.
The full extent of flood water during 2012 seasonal floods
The full extent of flood water during 2007 extreme floods
However, as we have seen and discussed in other blog posts, this flood was very much a normal, seasonal flood with the floodplains surrounding the market town under water. ‘Seasonal flood’ is very much a buzz word amongst Tewkesbury residents to encourage people to come to the town during these types of flood events despite what they may read or hear in the media. A BBC article explores the use of phrases like ‘seasonal floods’ and ‘open for business’ from Tewkesbury residents as a counter strategy to the flood reputation built up within the media. This article asks 5 Tewkesbury residents from different walks of life the same question:
So, five years on, how has it felt to see the town back in the national spotlight after heavy rains led to seasonal flooding?
Despite answering the question from different angles, the respondents portray a range of shared beliefs and attitudes. The continual association of Tewkesbury with the 2007 floods and its floodplain location is the main issue. The residents feel that due to the extreme flood event in 2007 the perception amongst the public is that all subsequent normal floods have the same impact. This perception is confirmed by the media:
“After all we did as a community when we surrounded the Abbey with colour and music and laughter (“Over the Rainbow” event, 2008) and said “we’ve got over this”, but it doesn’t appear that the media is capable of getting over it.
They are trying to make Tewkesbury and flooding an open sore, and it isn’t.
[This week] I have seen nothing that hasn’t happened three times a year all the 14 years that I have been the town crier”.
Due to the media referring to 2007 during any flood since then, visitors tend to:
“…….think that Tewkesbury is virtually shut but it’s not.
I have had customers phoning up asking if we are going to be open and I have had family and friends phoning up to make sure we are alright. Everything’s fine.”
This frustration leads to the residents’ coming together to propagate the concept of ‘seasonal floods’ and to advertise that Tewkesbury is ‘open for business’ to the general public. They wanted to teach the wider public to differentiate between the two scales of floods – seasonal, i.e. ‘normal’ and 2007, i.e. exceptional.
Many are afraid that the general association between Tewkesbury and floods is reaffirmed by visitors, which is believed to cause negative economic consequences for the town.
“They’ll look at the weather and think the town is closed.”
“It [recent media coverage] has brought flooding back into the forefront and makes people wonder whether Tewkesbury should be here or not…….We have started to get places and we really need to carry on, but people tend to get nervous especially when they are put under a lot of pressure about flooding.”
Severn and Avon Valley Combined Flood Group
“We are a holiday town and we rely on that and it is unfair really to think of flooding and then immediately think of Tewkesbury.”
Vicar of Tewkesbury
What this article explores is:
The use of media to confirm and form perceptions about certain topics
Continued association of Tewkesbury and flooding
Sense of community to reverse Tewkesbury’s reputation using positive buzz words such as ‘seasonal flooding’ and ‘open for business’
The importance of distinguishing different kinds of floods – especially for floodplain residents, but also for wider society
The recently created website of the Gloucestershire parish of Apperley and Deerhurst features a page on the 1947 and 2007 floods, both of which strongly affected Deerhurst village.
Among a collection of photographs from 1947, the website states:
Residents of Deerhurst were used to the River Severn flooding, but the high flood levels of March 1947 took everyone by surprise. Many people had to be rescued from their houses by boat. […]
Following the floods of 1947, Deerhurst village had built earth and stank defences around the village to the height of the 1947 floods. […]
In 2007, following a torrential rainfall resulting in unprecedented flooding in Gloucestershire, these defences were over-topped for a short while and the houses were again flooded. The Environment Agency, who had assumed the former STWA duties, spent well over £0.5 million upgrading and expanding the defences in 2007 to 2009, to the extent that they are now about two feet higher than the 2007 flood level.
This account makes flooding part of the ‘public’ history of the parish. It thereby goes beyond the taboo of openly talking about flood histories, for instance due to anxieties regarding the real estate market or the insurance industry.
However, the short text tells a very particular version of the story that – without contradicting any of the accounts from other villagers – leaves out a lot of information that seems important to others. For instance, it mentions the funding from the Environment Agency for the construction of the improved flood defences, but does not mention the ingenious efforts of the villagers to plan the defences and secure this funding.
This was the general reaction from two residents of Coney Hill and Abbeymead (both Gloucester) to the scale of the flooding. Where these residents lived, the only effect of the floods was the mains water being switched off after the Mythe water treatment plant was contaminated with flood water. With the power of the images portrayed on the news, the two realised the full extent of the flooding. One of the participants mentions the famous image of ‘The Isle of Tewkesbury’ to highlight this realisation:
“When he [step-father] said about how high it was and some cars were underneath the water, I didn’t believe and thought he was probably exaggerating. Then it comes on the news and I could only see the church and the tops of people’s houses then it showed how serious it was. I was like, “Oh, ok.” That was quite scary to think about it in that way.”
Striking photographs on the news allows people to apply certain images to certain events, and as shown above, clarify and fortify memories. As the flooding, both pre-2007 and 2007, didn’t affect these research participants, there seems to be no reason for them to have a watery sense of place. However, living in an urban area void of modern urban drainage and SUD’s, the participants do show a degree of a watery sense of place and local flood knowledge. For example, they know which roads become flooded even during heavy rain, without there being a flood on a larger scale. One such example is Tredworth Road, Gloucester as shown below:
The lights from the traffice show the severity of the dip under the railway bridge.
The flood water is creating that this part of the Tredworth Road, espeically at night, is flat leading to trapped cars.
P2: “They were showing lots of pictures of Tredworth Road, and there is a bridge and the road dips down really far, and that one completely flooded. It looked like a straight road at night but it is really deep. I heard cars drove into it. It is funny but there is a picture of the guy just sat on top of his car.”
P1: “Is that under the railway bridge?”
P2: “……..that bridge because it does flood quite often. I don’t think he was from Gloucester otherwise he would have known that.”
This shows not only some of the participants’ local flood knowledge, but also illustrates how flood knowledge is linked to a sense of place and belonging: People from Gloucester are presented as those knowledgeable about easily flooded places. In this view, flood knowledge forms part of local identity. Over the time the quoted research participants have lived in Gloucester, they learned which roads would be affected by heavy rain, and they count themselves as insiders. During the interview, such local knowledge and associated sense of place was evoked in relation to the recent rain spell in the region. With this interview being conducted in early May, during a period of sustained rain, one of participants recalls the effects of the rain:
“I live down a little country road, and at the bottom of the road it dips down a bit. We have a massive puddle down there at the moment. Plus down and round the corner from our house, it isn’t flooded, but you know when water is running downhill, you don’t think it much but when you walk through it you realise it is quite a lot. That has been running constantly for three days and it still hasn’t gone. If it did turn out like it did in the floods, it probably would flood quite badly round there.”
This research participant thus makes connections between her experience of a smaller flooding events and the great flood of 2007. It does not seem to need suffering dramatic flooding to develop local flood knowledge and a watery sense of place.During the 2007 flood, the research participants would have been in their mid to late teens. They had no previous flood experience/memories, and being young, the fact that it flooded had little relevance to them. Nevertheless, one of the participants does explore the nature and use of flood memories for future events:
“I just have an opinion to not forget something that you can learn from. Especially the people who were hit and their houses were flooded, and if they are in an area where it could happen again; if you don’t forget it you’ll be prepared for it. I can understand if someone wanted to forget something that was that upsetting. They wouldn’t want to wait around for something to happen again.”
In essence, this research participant is describing memories as a ‘double-edged sword’ as they are useful for preparedness but may also be painful to bear. Furthermore, she places herself in flood victim’s shoes when she observes:
I: “If that stream had got into your house, would you have a different view?”
P2: “I think I would have been more negative about it. If it would have ruined all of our stuff it would have been a more emotional time.”
I: “So would your negativity [about flooding] be confirmed?”
P2: “Probably yes. It is different. We only were without water and it wasn’t that big of a deal. They had water at the bottom of the road and they gave out bottled water; it wasn’t a very big deal to live with, it just wasn’t very nice. Whereas if it did come into our house, it would be a lot more to deal with.”
This feeling of sympathy seems to be brought round by basic human nature fuelled by the exposure to victim’s stories being written and shown in the media. This seems to lead to an emotional link between victims and non-victims, which can be beneficial for some victims. However, the exposure to sympathy can be overwhelming for some victims who then refuse any help, possibly leading to them being isolated.
What this account explores is:
Flood knowledge may serve as a marker of identity and community membership
Sympathetic relationship of non-affected people towards flood victims.
The power of the mass media in communicating an emergency.
Recent flooding on the River Severn again revealed differing perceptions of floods, as well as the power of the media in shaping flood risk discourses, and the resentment of floodplain residents to the media representation of flooding.
It’s mostly the outsiders who get excited about the extent of the waters on the Tewkesbury Ham and along the Mill Avon. For local residents, this is just a ‘normal flood’.
On April 30th, the national BBC website reported that “Tewkesbury sets up flood incident room as river rises“. The image provided under this headline was not of the current floods, however, but of the great flood in July 2007, nearly five years ago. Also, the most striking ‘news’ of the article concerned the 2007 emergency. When it continued to report on the actual, present flood, the story sounded disappointingly dull compared to the opening lines. The reader also learns that it wasn’t “Tewkesbury” that set up a flood incident room, but the Environment Agency.
Similarly, on May 1st, a Guardian article on “the wettest April on record” was published with a picture of the 2007 floods, not the present one. The caption reads: “Tewkesbury, scene of extreme flooding in 2007, faces renewed disaster as floodwater levels rise.” The Independent’s article of May 4th, pronouncing “Tewkesbury flood threat returns as heavy rains continue” was also illustrated purely with images of the 2007 flood. And the images that make up the majority of the Daily Mail article of that same day are geared to evoke the similarities between the present situation and the 2007 flood, too, with photographs dominated by the extent of water on the floodplain. It refers to Tewkesbury as the “Gloucestershire town was devastated by near-identical floods five years ago“.
But were the recent floods ‘near-identical’ to those of 2007? From a distant, aerial photograph perspective, this might seem the case, as much of the floodplain was inundated again in early May 2012. But critically, the distribution of the water, as well as the extent of the floods, were rather different to the situation five years ago. The Daily Mail reporter does notice this, when his perspective changes from the ‘big picture’ to that of speaking to local residents:
So how were the good folk of Tewkesbury conducting themselves yesterday in the face of what some feared would be another Biblical-style disaster? Well, they were mostly just getting on with life.
‘This is not a flood,’ said Samantha Snape, 38-year-old owner of the picturesque Lower Lode Inn, where the water had spilled over the Severn banks and was sloshing a few feet from her doorstep.
‘This is a flood,’ she told me, pointing to a 2007 photograph of the 15th-century building partly submerged.
To her left was a brass plaque that marked how deep the water was last time. It’s screwed in several inches above waist height.
This echoes what many of our respondents have been saying about the recent flooding – this is a ‘normal flood’, something they would expect at least once or twice a year. They keep an eye on it, but do not get worried. This is Tewkesbury after all, located on the floodplain at the confluence of the Rivers Severn and Avon and a number of smaller watercourses.
Also Dave Throup from the Environment Agency stated in a video interview with the Telegraph that the current flood is not to be mistaken for an event similar to the 2007 floods:
This is an entirely different situation. We’d expect levels like this probably a couple of times a year in Tewkesbury. We haven’t for the last couple of years because it has been so dry. You know, that’s why we are in drought. […] And in 2007 it was probably a good metre higher than it is now. I think if you have lived in Tewkesbury for any period of time you will have seen this many times. And people are used to it. And indeed most of the communities up the Severn will be used to rivers coming up and going back down. And it does look dramatic because the river will come out of its banks and it will fill miles of floodplain. But you know, that’s what they are there for. They are fulfilling their proper function.
Whereas such a ‘normal flood’ thus does not upset floodplain residents, the media hype referring back to the destruction and disruptions of 2007 surely does. Some inhabitants of Tewkesbury, for instance, are fed up with the idea that all their home town is known for is its flooding, and in particular the 2007 floods. They are frustrated with the media ignoring how well they actually get on with these ordinary floods. In particular, businesses like local shops, hotels and restaurants feel victimised by this misrepresentation, as each time the national media announces a flood in Tewkesbury, they experience a decline in customers.
Two weeks after the flood peak, on May 16th, the Gloucestershire Echo interpreted the small flood as a good test for the County’s contingency planning. In hindsight, it was noted that the emergency services coped very well with the events, and the only flood-related incidents in the County pertained to a few driveways and garages, rather than people’s homes. It was a tiny event compared to 2007, a ‘normal flood’ rather than a large-scale emergency.
Some of the issues that are explored here are:
How different regular and exceptional floods are for floodplain inhabitants
How the media may blur these critical differences in an attempt to gain more attention
How such misrepresentations are problematic for local residents and businesses
And how small floods may act as reminders of big ones, keeping flood risk in people’s minds.
Do disaster events such as floods re-establish communities? And do these communities exist only as long as the common experience prevails? Many of the interviews conducted for this project suggest that flood experience fosters a sense of community that is not necessarily seen under everyday conditions. Many people refer back to the Blitz Spirit, which seems to be the quintessential disaster community they remember. A constant theme throughout this interview is how the community spirit positively – and surprisingly – supports flood victims:
“And the Brewers Fayre, the Travelodge place up by the motorway, was just ram-packed because everyone had just come off there and in fact all of their rooms had gone, and I remember stories afterwards that how well the waiting staff had done. There were free hot chocolate or free drinks and things. I remember a letter in the newspaper at what a credit the staff was. They couldn’t get home but they kept working, serving all of these people and trying to get blankets. I know a couple off the Ashchurch Road; I know they went out with cups of tea and things [to people] that were stuck in the traffic. I think they let some people stay. I think they just said to them, “Are you stuck, do you want to come and stay in our spare room?”
This emergency community was established in a Travelodge, a place that many people would not visit on an everyday basis. Perhaps an unconventional location adds to the sense of urgency and exceptionality that allows this community spirit to emerge. The interviewed couple also talks about a disused railway line, now a foot- and cycle-path, as such an extraordinary, ‘liminal’ space. As the only way in and out of town during the floods, the railway line is another example of a different location of the disaster community that came into existence through the floods. In the image above, the disused railway line is the dark green line across the image, uninterrupted by flood water (from http://www.webbaviation.co.uk/gallery/v/greatfloods/). Normally, people would drive to town in their cars, hardly interacting with each other as they are strapped into their motorized confines. During the floods, however, they had to walk along this footpath, encountering plentiful situations to interact with each other. This would have lead to a temporary community of people sharing experiences or solving practical tasks together.
P2: I was quite lucky because that railway line close to where you were didn’t flood. People thought there was no way into the town centre but actually there was, and a lot of people used that. A lot of people did their shopping in the middle of town in Tesco.
P1: It got incredibly busy.
P2: Normally you would never see anyone on it, and suddenly there were masses of people on it. That was interesting because it actually got people out of their cars for a while for local journeys.
This shows that flooding brings people together but not necessarily in the ways or places they expected. It also shows how flooding can change human behaviour in positive ways and let stories be told. Many of the people using the footpath might not have talked to each other if the roads had been open.
As the title quote suggests, the couple believe that community is there when they need it. Their community spirit is dormant, and only re-invigorated in residents’ consciousness during events like this. It is summed up by:
“I think there was an initial bringing the community together, but I think people re-established that they were a community and maybe they don’t do as many events as a community as you would hope, but it still re-established communities. [They] were there and in times of need they come together again.”
Maybe the sense of permanent community is a social construct that has vanished in the younger generation. The generational difference does not only become apparent in the meaning of community, but also in the way different generations react to events such as the flood. Both the interviewees highlight this point by detailing their experiences of previous floods. One even regularly played in the floods. This sounds dangerous in this day-of-age, but this participant learned a lot about floods whilst playing in them:
P1: And like you say […] you used to play in the flood water, we used to go down a back road in Twyning and put our wellies on. Always with our parents, well we did anyway…..
P2: ……more of a liberal upbringing then (laughs)……
P1: ……I used to look at the flood water and that was part of it.
Flooding being a part of life of the participant as a child may develop a level of self-education in flooding, leading to a ‘watery sense of place’ and even an attitude of ‘biophilia’ towards floods.
Well actually it is something quite natural for it to flood.
The participants constantly refer to people rolling up their trousers and wading through water, further suggesting a watery sense of place exists in locations like Tewkesbury. With a perceived ‘nanny state’ and improved flood defences and warnings, the next generation are being told that flooding is a dangerous and extremely negative event, whereas people who have experienced many floods see flooding as a part of Tewkesbury. A watery sense of place is beneficial to floodplain residents, as seen in previous blog posts. So with the protection of the younger generation from floods, can they be taught a watery sense of place without frequently being exposed to actual floods? Apparently, many children affected by the floods had little knowledge of flooding:
They [the children] thought as soon as it chucked it down, floods were going to come; they didn’t understand how flooding happens.
By the same token, if flood risk on the floodplain were to decline, the watery sense of place would perhaps disappear along with people’s flood experience. However, events like the 2007 floods are exceptional but may happen again. Flood risk is never totally eliminated. The interviewees say that nature always finds a way of imposing itself, and this needs to be taught to children, for instance with an annual Flood Week in schools; this would expose children to flooding in their home area, and provide them with a current and locally relevant subject.
Throughout the interview, the couple’s generally positive attitude towards the floods, and occasional laughter, was noticeable. This may be due to their own houses not being flooded. This meant that the couple could:
‘Possibly draw out the positives a lot easier than other people can.’
The couple does comment that if they had been flooded, their memories would be different and possibly they would resent the flood. They also tell stories of people who had been flooded, in order to convey a balanced view of the floods.
With memories meaning different things to different people, naturally the starting point to the respective narratives is different. For example ‘If it had been five years earlier and without digital cameras, we would be running out of film’ starts a month before the actual flood event. This person sees the start of a rainy period as an important beginning to his narrative, whereas the present account starts during the heavy rain of Friday 21st July. Both accounts show the way narratives are constructed and personal, despite in parts telling the same story.
What this account explores is:
A dormant community spirit which seems to become re-established during flooding or similar disasters
Self-education of flooding leading to a watery sense of place
Flood victims tend to look at the wider picture
The construction of memory, especially the start of people’s narrative.
After being invited to produce flood poems in conjunction with the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2007, poet Brenda Read-Brown gathered stories from victims of the 2007 floods to perform at the festival and latterly at the Ledbury Poetry Festival 2008. Many of her poems are narratives of stories that didn’t hit the news headlines. She spoke to different people within society, from musicians, emergency services and micro-communities, to collate the wider events before, during and after the flood.
As stated by the poet during her Ledbury performance (see below), the poems “aren’t works of great art, but what I have tried to do is to capture the different voices of the people involved”. Her poems focus directly on people’s flood stories, giving them centre stage instead of indirectly communicating them like much of literature and poems do, requiring a great deal of interpretation.
Each poem narrates a different story which she collated during her research. In all, there are ten stories that have been formed into poems. Many of the stories reflect themes similar to those of previous blog posts and interviews. These include:
Realisation of the weather
At first, standing outside, it seemed quite funny,
To get wetter, and wetter and still wetter,
But then the penny dropped:
The weather wasn’t getting better.
Poem 1 – The Violins Played On
Power of the water and watery sense of place
But then came the two-point attack!
As if the hills had tipped their load –
A wall of water crossed the road;
Poem 2 – Salvage
Community spirit and resilience
When the power went off in Priors Park
The dark was defeated by candles that glimmered
On people all seated at tables outside, drinking wine,
While under the water the car roofs shimmered.
Poem 4 – Priors Park
And everyone, all different, landed
Together by chance, stayed cheerful, didn’t complain.
Poem 5 – Blitzed
Back in business; trading;
With nothing but a watermark six feet high
And twenty thousand books, marinading
Poem 2 – Salvage
And I put my memories in a skip,
As if my life was washed away;
All the little things I knew so well
Poem 9 – Flushed Away
And if the waters come again next year?
Well, now we will know just what to expect.
We’ve learned – from life, not books – to pay nature due respect.
Poem 2 – Salvage
Looking at floods in a wider context
I must be grateful, though – I can escape,
Walk up an alley, get away from here,
Whenever it really gets me down.
In Bangladesh it happens every year,
And people drown.
Poem 9 – Washed Away
The poems also tell of something not yet covered on this blog: the stories of the emergency services. For example, one thing that is raised in poems 7 and 10 is the willingness to continue rescuing people despite feeling exhausted, with many of these emergency services personnel running on just adrenaline:
And said I’d had a little sleep;
When, with the water six feet deep,
I spent eight days in an undrugged high,
Buzzing with adrenaline, getting by
With nothing but nerves and colleagues for support
Poem 7 – Unbelievable
During the flood there was little time to take stock and gather memories; looking back on the event itself the emergency service personnel have vivid memories:
Other memories abound:
In exhilarating action, not just desk-bound;
Challenged by the need for ever-changing plans;
Humbled by the gratitude of every man
And woman that I met;
I won’t forget
The backdrop beat and thump of generators;
Rescue vessels sliding up town streets
Like alligators in a mangrove swamp;
The aerial view: not what we knew – instead
It was the Gloucestershire Delta, Terry said.
Poem 10 – Instead
The poems go further and describe the shear effort, not just from Gloucestershire personnel, but from emergency services further afield. Poem 10 is set at the M5 Strensham Services, and describes an emergency service HQ and even an ‘emergency service community’. This shows that communities are formed in many guises and for different time-frames, but these communities have similarities to a ‘victim’s community’; resilience, spirit and help.
Poems are another way for memories to be maintained and remembered as they are fixed memories in books and online. Much like ‘The Caravan’ these memories are now conceptualised in art and accessible to everyone. On top of this, with the themes described above future readers will see the full scope of living through a flood event and not just the narrow view the media portrayed.
Furthermore, do examples like poetry just analysed have the potential to educate people, especially children, through geography? This is discussed by Eleanor Rawling in the Teaching Geography Journal, in which she describes three poets and their ‘sense of place’ along the River Severn. Rawling argues in her article ‘The Severn was brown and the Severn was blue’ – A place for poetry in school geography?, that as geography is becoming more about ‘sense of place’ poetry can help students realise their own ‘sense of place’. She suggest that previously, geography
“has not done enough to help young people reflect on the way their own lives are intertwined with the places and landscapes they inhabit, or to introduce them to more personal responses to place.”
(Rawling, 2010: 93)
Rawling argues that the poems she quotes in her article are not only geographically correct but also show the poets’ interconnection with the river. These poems are an example of the reviving of a phenomenological approach to place. This as approach, Rawling suggests, would improve the students’ awareness of and connection with the natural environment. In mainstream geography teaching, the students are constantly discouraged from emotive engagement with the topics on the curriculum. Recent theory developments in geography, however, indicate that emotions are a central to understanding much of what geography is about, including landscape, spatial behaviour, and attitudes towards the environment.
Rawling sees Philip Gross’ Betweenland poems as summarising:
“the intense mystery of the river environment, complete with geographically accurate observations and poetic definitions of well-known features – the estuary is like ‘a battered pewter hearing trumpet amplifying distance’; the catchment is ‘a sort of shelf’, ‘a notional line within which nothing is alien to the river’.”
These emotive feelings can emphasis the stats that students are given and can even be more important than bare ‘facts’ themselves. Flood memories are a prime example of emotive interconnections between people and their social and ecological environments.